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Khan World School: Can It Avoid Online Learning’s Pitfalls?

Fifteen years ago, Harvard MBA Sal Khan revolutionized K-12 education with instructional videos posted to his YouTube channel that hundreds of school districts across America use daily.

Now he’s back with a controversial new offering: an online school operated in collaboration with Arizona State University called Khan World School.

Also known as a virtual school or cyber school, an online school is a pre-college educational institution that delivers all its instructional services exclusively online through the internet. Students interact with teachers and classmates through online platforms, such as Zoom video meetings, web conferencing, and discussion channels.

But what makes these K-12 schools different is that instead of offering individual courses online as a supplement to in-person grade school and high school classes, the online schools provide comprehensive full-time educational programs that completely replace enrollment at brick-and-mortar schools.

Online schools offer a flexible alternative to traditional in-person schools, allowing students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. And they’re not new; Stanford University has operated a pioneering online lab school since 2005. However, these schools are controversial because they encompass what one might term the “online school paradox.”

What is the “Online School Paradox?”

Although online schools provide a viable alternative for millions of students stuck with poor-quality instructional experiences in inner-city, small town, and rural school districts, many of the students in full-time online programs actually come from highly-ranked school districts in affluent suburban communities. But that’s not all that’s paradoxical about these schools’ students.

Instead of students with academic or behavioral challenges who might qualify for special education classes or those with resource deficiencies eligible for free school lunch programs, virtual schools tend to enroll high-performing students unencumbered by these constraints.

Moreover, a subset of online schools accounting for 70 percent of virtual school students—online charter schools—when compared with national averages, enrolls about three to five times as many gifted students.

However, in contrast with in-person public instruction, the performance of full-time online schools could be better. The U.S. General Accounting Office discovered in 2022 that their average reading proficiency rate was 18 percent less than at brick-and-mortar public schools. The GAO also found that the math proficiency rate for virtual charter schools was 25 percentage points lower than the rate for brick-and-mortar traditional schools—or only about 45 percent of the national average for in-person public education.

Dr. Michael Barbour, a professor of instructional design at Touro University California, told EdSurge that this is the opposite of what one should expect to observe if the real purpose of virtual schools was to serve the students that public brick-and-mortar schools fail. “When you look at their actual performance, full-time, online programs performed quite miserably compared to the brick-and-mortar counterparts,” he says.

Part of the reason for this abysmal performance might have something to do with the way that the business entities managing these schools happen to be structured. The GAO also estimated that about 42 percent of the virtual charter schools had contracts with for-profit management organizations. In a scathing January 2022 report, the GAO writes, “These contracts can pose heightened financial and programmatic risks to federal funds, according to Department of Education officials.”

Now, that’s hardly any surprise. Our recent OnlineEducaton.com analysis of the proposed takeover of the distressed for-profit University of Phoenix by the University of Arkansas System features an extensive examination of the widespread fraud and corruption in the for-profit education industry that destroyed the public’s confidence in that sector since 2010. Is it any wonder that a for-profit education management firm overseeing a virtual school might be overstating student attendance figures, given that those inflated tallies will boost these firms’ profits and shareholder value?

What Value Does Khan Deliver?

Now, precisely how Khan Academy plans to surpass this dismal track record isn’t entirely clear. But what is clear is Sal Khan’s motivation to bring high-quality education to the best students around the globe: “A couple years ago, we said, well, we should do an online school that can actually scale that people could use just as is, or it could be used alongside physical programs to supplement them,” he told EdSurge.

Forbes Magazine’s senior education analyst Michael B. Horn may have compiled the best summary of how the Khan World School thinks it can transform virtual schools. Horn details the areas where Khan’s educational design “should result in important advances for education” under three categories: Mastery, Socializing, and Value.

The Mastery Learning Framework

First, Khan’s Mastery Learning brings a radical new approach to students’ ability to understand course material and demonstrate their understanding. As he explains in this 2021 interview podcast, Khan doesn’t seem satisfied with students who score only 70 percent grades in calculus, statistics, or organic chemistry. He seems to argue that the world would be dramatically improved if we all could achieve the equivalent of proficiency above 90 percent in courses like these.

The World School’s assessments seem to be the most novel part of his Mastery Learning philosophy. Khan appears to want to replace a letter grade with a recorded video assessment, a kind of mini “dissertation defense” that substitutes for written quizzes, tests, and examinations.

One of Khan Academy’s websites—known as schoolhouse.world—serves as a platform to validate mastery and enable online tutoring. Horn describes the platform this way:

In essence, students record their face and screen as they take a Khan Academy assessment and explain their reasoning out loud. That video artifact is then peer-reviewed by others on the platform who have already proved their mastery of the concept to assess whether a student has mastered at least 90 percent of the concept. The platform is designed to authenticate that someone’s work is in fact their own to eliminate cheating and verify mastery.

“If anyone ever doubts it, they can click on that video and watch you perform it,” Khan said. “It’s a far better signal than saying someone got a 95 percent on a test that they took 10 years ago.”

Encouraging Social Interactions

Khan also explained that “the stereotype of online learning is that, ‘Oh, you’re just doing your own thing, you feel detached from other people.’ Honestly, that’s the stereotype of some in-person learning as well. You’re just sitting in a classroom and your eyes are glazed over.”

The World School has set an objective of encouraging peer social engagement. And one of the ways the school aims to promote such interactions is through a live synchronous daily seminar where students talk about advanced, college-level topics not typically discussed in high schools. Here are a few examples:

  • Will the Fed be able to control inflation?
  • Will CRISPR change the human genome?
  • Should social media be blamed for the polarization in the world?

Khan also said that “we want to be able to have a place where we can have conversations, and teach students, and maybe the world, that there’s a way to have conversations and to be able to disagree about these things, but be able to do it respectfully, and learn from each other.”

The World School’s YouTube site shows an example of such an event. This is a live Zoom video recording of the first seminar that Khan moderated himself with ten of the school’s first new students in June 2022. The topic focused on what effective leadership means to the students and their families.

A Unique Value Proposition

Khan’s World School is certainly unique in that it’s a full-time online charter school with free tuition for Arizona residents that isn’t restricted to serving students only within that state. Khan has received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to accept students from all 50 states and U.S. territories and most foreign countries.

However, compared with free public instruction, tuition for students outside Arizona isn’t cheap; Khan charges $10,000 a year for American citizens and $12,000 for foreign nationals.

How does Khan justify the value of that tuition? Here’s what he claims:

If students are able to put in even 20 minutes a day for three days a week, doing mastery learning in math, they’re going 50 percent to 100 percent faster than their comparable peers…. That’s just an hour a week doing that. Now, imagine Khan World School where that is the way that we’re going to learn everything. You’re just going to have a really strong foundation.

Those are certainly bold promises. Nevertheless, Khan World School’s actually delivering on promises to improve student performance like those will likely depend more on whether its new offering can overcome online charter schools’ deficiencies. And despite how Khan implements new assessment forms, the school will also need to demonstrate superiority in old-fashioned, head-to-head testing of student performance that will satisfy industry observers and government analysts in agencies like the GAO.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.